June 22nd, 2008

carole lombard 07
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A tribute to "beautiful dynamite"

A memorial service will be held today at 3 p.m. (PT) at Hillside Memorial Park in Los Angeles for Cyd Charisse, the iconic dancer who died Tuesday of a heart attack at age 86 (although some reports say she was 87).

Charisse's artistry will be appreciated for many generations to come. It's easy to focus on her legs; they were long, shapely and beautiful. But unlike, say, Marlene Dietrich, whose legs were also great to look at from a sex appeal perspective, it was what Cyd did with those legs that made them -- and her -- so special.

Trained in the ballet (she was a member of the L.A.-based Ballet Russe as a teenager in the late 1930s), Charisse blended its innate elegance with athleticism and sensuality. Her dance routines were incredibly erotic, but they were simultaneously classy. Men wished they could dance with her; women wished they could be her. (Charisse was popular with both genders.) Tall for a female dancer of that era (5'7 1/2"), she could be overpowering and feminine at the same time; any male dance partner, no matter how talented, had to prove himself worthy of this goddess of terpsichore.

The picture above is from "Singin' In The Rain," to many the greatest film musical ever made. Charisse doesn't do much in the movie aside from dancing, and supposedly she was hired only because Gene Kelly's co-star, Debbie Reynolds, wasn't sufficiently experienced in the dance. Despite Charisse's brief time on screen, she's long been considered an integral part of the film.

Charisse's other major dance partner was the elegant Fred Astaire, notably in "The Band Wagon" and "Silk Stockings." He once referred to her as "beautiful dynamite."

Asked to compare Astaire to Kelly, Charisse once said her longtime husband, singer Tony Martin, could tell whom she was working with at the time. “If I was black and blue,” she said, “it was Gene. And if it was Fred, I didn’t have a scratch.” However, she loved working with both, calling their styles "apples and oranges."

I should note that Martin and Charisse celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary earlier this year, amazing considering it was the second marriage for each. (Martin, who turned 95 last Christmas Day and actually did a few singing dates at a New York club at about that time, had previously been married to Alice Faye; Cyd, born Tula Finklea in Amarillo, Texas, was formerly married to dance instructor Nico Charisse and had a son by each of her husbands.)

Charisse's singing in films was usually dubbed, and she admitted that her acting lagged far behind her dancing...although she eventually became a capable actress once musicals fell out of fashion.

Always the professional, Cyd made many friends in the Hollywood community, and in later years, she served as an envoy to the golden age -- enabling younger generations to understand what that wonderful era was all about. In 1992, at age 70, she fulfilled a lifelong dream by appearing on Broadway in an adaptation of "Grand Hotel," playing the Garbo role, just as she did in "Silk Stockings" (a "Ninotchka" remake).

Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. has altered its prime-time schedule this Friday to honor Charisse, airing "Singin' In The Rain" at 8 p.m. (ET), "The Band Wagon" at 10 p.m. and "Silk Stockings" at midnight. (As it turns out, TCM had previously scheduled "The Band Wagon" at 9:15 a.m. Monday.)

TCM's own blog, "Movie Morlocks," recently paid a nice tribute to Charisse (http://moviemorlocks.com/2008/06/18/cyd-charisse-1928-2008/), including clips from three of her most memorable routines.

And here's an interesting -- and amusing -- anecdote about director Stanley Donen, one of Cyd's most erotic on-screen routines, and his battle against censorship: http://moviestildawn.blogspot.com/2008/02/cyd-charisse-coitus-choreographus.html

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